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In her book Birds Art Life, author Kyo Maclear decides to watch the birds in her big city. Over the changing seasons, Maclear opens her head and heart to avian creatures. In their company, she finds that she comes to life. Birds help her cope with her anxieties and sense of belonging.
This works for me, too. Now, more than ever! While birds have always kept me grounded and aware of my surroundings, this year they helped me with a major transition in my life.
As a new immigrant to Canada, I learned to let the birds help me connect with my new country.
I was overjoyed when it snowed for the first time. With multiple pictures of pristine snow-clad trees outside my window, a cup of hot chocolate in my hand and a bright coloured tuque, I welcomed winter. Of course, the ecstasy and novelty wore off after the first cold month. For all the romanticization of snow in the movies, these stories have not done me any favours. I imagined the merriment of Christmas would last forever, I’d dance in the snow to Bollywood music and the pristine flakes would remain sparkling all season. Reality hit soon enough.
To say winter was hard would be an understatement. It was awful. I lived a tropical beach life in Goa, India before coming to Toronto, and Canada’s weather tested my resilience. But one snowy day the bright red of a Northern Cardinal made me run outside to get a closer look at the beautiful bird. I was in such a hurry to snap a picture that I forgot my jacket. Nearby the striking male was a less-bright female. This cardinal pair sighting made up for all the cold and gloom. The negative temperatures had a red lining! Since the cardinals seemed to be enjoying the weather, I was determined to do the same.
On another cold January day, I shivered under my jacket as I walked around the grounds exploring Toronto’s Casa Loma. I was lost in my thoughts when a little white and black Downy Woodpecker decided to make some noise. I watched this small woodpecker hop about and fly from tree to tree, making the most use of its beak, and remembered the Black-rumped woodpecker of my birth country. I could see how both the woodpeckers were so resilient regardless of the seasons and marvelled at their abilities. He was working hard to find food even in the chill. I could work hard despite the chill, too.
In February, we drove out to the picturesque town of Niagara-on-the-Lake outside the city. The slightly frozen river, with a cold blast of wind, was an all-new experience for me. My hands were so cold inside mittens that failed me, and I was struggling to hold my camera. But the joy of seeing a long-tailed duck with its pale pink beak swimming in through the ice-crusted water was a sight to remember. He went underwater and emerged much happier after the dive. He had learnt to enjoy the cold and I learnt to hold my camera straight despite numb fingers.
On a beautiful day in March, I saw a robin feeding on a staghorn sumac tree. The sight of a bird happily feeding lifted me up. March was still not warm, I could not put my down jacket away even though I was longing for warmer weather. But watching the robin feed reminded me of the arrival of fruit on the semal tree back in India, and how birds would flock to eat its seasonal wonders. The joy of food knows no geographical boundaries. I went back home smiling, comforted after knowing that perhaps not everything has changed despite the 11,000-kilometre distance between India and Canada.
In the spring came the hopping Robin – that ubiquitous bird with the orange belly and frequent chirping. Before I came to Canada, a pair of common laughing doves had made a nest near my home in India. I had watched the female bird lay its eggs and parents feed their babies. I witnessed the first flight of those little ones and hold that memory dearly. So, imagine my joy when the robins decided to make a nest just outside my window in Toronto. I could watch the blue eggs hatch and see the babies grow. I saw the parents carry back food and the babies leaving the comfort of their nest to try out flight. I felt grateful to be able to partake in growing up of the birds, both in India and Canada.
Watching Toronto’s birds has helped me make new connections and friendships. I shared pictures on the Toronto Birding Facebook group and was overwhelmed with the positive responses from new faces. People reached out with stories of robin’s nests in their backyard, the best birding spots in city and generous suggestions for celebrating birding in Toronto. I went with a group of birders to listen to the dawn chorus of birds and celebrated cherry blossoms with Baltimore orioles. Finally, I had found a community. I felt belonged!
I have fallen in love with this country a little bit more every day. The birds and the country feel familiar now. I can successfully differentiate between a white-throated sparrow and a chipping Sparrow’s sound.
I may always compare the birds I see in Canada with those I know from my past – a tree swallow’s gorgeous blue-green colouring makes me think of the purple sunbird of India, and the architectural marvel of the cliff swallow’s nests remind me of the Baya Weaver’s homes. But at least now when I see mallard ducks, they do not remind me of past European vacations but of the shorelines in Toronto’s parks.
I now belong here. And once a Canada Goose decides to attack me, I will be sure to apply for citizenship.
Mani Goel lives in Toronto.
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